Sunday, May 25, 2014

Measure of Devotion

Father's Day, for me, is a shameful day. Understand, please, that the shame is mine, not his.  I don't know that this is an objective truth;  It is, however, the truth I have decided upon.

"Honor thy father and thy mother" is the fifth commandment in the Christian Top Ten, and the first commandment to add a Carrot to the Stick.

Honor your father and your mother,

that your days may be long

in the land which the Lord your God gives you

--Exodus 20:12 (RSV)

One of my favorite off-the-cuff and exceedingly clever remarks to make? "Ew, that is so Old Testament!"

I am, for some reason, surrounded by Catholics and Muslims.  Those who do not willingly self-identify usually tend to be Buddhists, and live on my various porches for up to three years at a time.  (They also bathe the least, but smell the best. Should you ever do a smell test of your spiritually-diverse household, I think you'll find that observation holds up.)

Bringing up the Old Testament to Catholics, or almost any one, really, is a wonderfully scathing thing to say in response to some undeserved harsh judgment. Sort of the "your mama" of theological cat fights.

After dropping out of college during my second semester, being disowned, and running away to the Smallish Big City, I worked 60-hour weeks as a nurse's aide in what was euphemistically called the "neurological post-intensive care unit." (Think squash, peas, corn, eggplant.)

Much of the reason for my belly-flop into the rich murky pool of life came from opening the box inside my head.  Growing up, all Serious Issues and Problems were discussed in closed-door scary sessions in the Master Bedroom on the Big Bed, my father pontificating and my stepmother applying cold cream to her face and neck, after fifteen minutes of standing on her head to avert Alzheimer's Disease.  When our "discussions" were about sad and irreparable things, Dad imparted the same advice, always:

"Put it in that box up in your head, lock the box, and throw away the key."

The smart-alek in me replied, in that same echo chamber of a head referenced above, "How the hell do I open the box to insert new bad memories, if every time, I toss the darn key?"

So it was as if I were the world's first free woman that I set out to live, and that jarring motion may have had some effect on what was, after all, an ancient lock and an ancient box, neither of which had I ever treasured.  The box in my head, built, after all, by a child, held some unwieldy, sharp-edged, and inappropriate adult things, and who knew what else, in its murky bottom.  All held together by Elmer's glue, bubble gum, oddly beautiful carved mortise and tenon joints, plus a significant sample of through dovetail joinery, a revered technique. A disparate box, my box.

Toward the end of my free times, much of which we will leave in the fogs of oblivion, I lived with Baber, a drop-dead gorgeous woman who suffered various addictions -- to cocaine, marijuana, tequila, moonshine, psilocybin mushrooms, cigarettes, and sex.   I was sleeping with the husband of a bisexual friend -- actually both Baber and I were -- in exchange for unlimited organic carrot juices at his (and her) downtown health food store -- also for pot and blueberry shine.

I became quite enamored of blueberry shine, and also, yes, of dandelion wine.

Sometimes, in lieu of a large life-sustaining carrot juice, I'd opt for a half-hour in the steam cabinet tucked in a corner of the herb-and-potions area of the back storeroom before catching the bus to tend to the brain dead.  I kept track of what I earned and owed in a bizarre mental ledger, using original mathematics and futuristic algorithms.  Lots of criss-crossing arrows in my accounts, on my account.

That still left too much time in ratio to my angst-ridden, caffeine-driven youth, so I toyed with this course and that course, using up precious elective credits at a good local university.

I had all that space of the excavated brain box to fill, and so I did. It was a rich time and rich times cost you.

Baber was lots of fun, for a while, until her Probation Officer began dropping by too often, and for the wrong reasons. If you get my blaring drift.  Since Baber ran into the bathroom and stood in the shower whenever he drove up, her PO and I became pretty good friends.  He'd always bang on the bathroom door on his way out, after a good 45 minutes of waiting for her to get clean, and sing her some version of "See you next month, Baber Baby."

Toward the end of our year together, The Baber lost her job as a Respiratory Therapist, became a short-skirted frilly-pantied waitress, began to deal coke out of our apartment (she had, believe it or not, a hollow-ended pool cue that sometimes came into play), and received her second Driving Under the Influence citation. Actually, I think these things are listed in the wrong order. It all seemed to happen at the same time, belying cause-and-effect neatness.

Part of Baber's DUI sentence included the temporary suspension of her driver's license. She insisted I go to court with her that long ago early morning, getting us there right on time in her jaunty Toyota stick shift, expertly maneuvering into a very tight -- but choice -- parking spot three-quarters up a tree-lined, steep, and narrow street.

I learned to drive in a pristine vintage  1965 baby blue Cadillac, which resembled nothing so much as a boat, after which I was gifted with a white 1963 Ford Falcon, my first automotive love. That was the extent of my experience as a driver. (Please note that as I got older, so did my cars.)   So it was no surprise, to me, at least, that I almost got us killed on the way home. We lived in a mountain town, a hilly mountain town, to boot, which helped not at all as I struggled to hold my place in line at stop signs without smashing the car behind or ramming the car in front, and to respond to Baber's barked, detox-driven instructions.

After that, my roomie called on her many other friends to get her from points A-to-B to wherever. I noticed that a few of her chauffeurs were cops, just as I had noticed a shy and blushing warmth between Baber and the traffic judge.  When I dared asked if she'd be violated on parole, she laughed.

I remember a strong feeling of disconnect during the final weeks of living with Baber. I was working Night Shift at the hospital so as to free up my days and evenings for two classes: "The Bible as Literature" and "The History of Western Civilization, Part One."

People like to play the game of "where were you when...?" -- I guess because it creates a reassuring collective, something we had more of when we were less evolved. Where were you when John Kennedy was shot, and Robert? Where were you when you heard that Reverend King had been assassinated, that four were dead in Ohio? Where were you when they tore down the Berlin Wall, when Nixon resigned? When Lennon fell, and George died, 2Pac got shot, and Pinochet waltzed off scot-free? Where were you when the Challenger blew up, when the Twin Towers came down? When Michael Jackson overdosed, when Obama won the election, when the market crashed?  When those babies were mowed down in Newtown?

Where was I when I first encountered Plato's man in a cave, chained both fore and aft to his fellows, facing a blank wall, that blank tablet on which was cast the shadows of things?

Where was I when I was washed in the darkness of the Allegory of the Cave? Turns out, it was one experience that took place at two different times. Once at its first reading, in that mountain city, in the campus library, where I sat peering out a huge plate glass window at the golden light, sun setting. The bookend of the experience came 6 or 7 years later. I was walking down Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, and came upon a beautiful blue shoe, a woman's pump in raw silk. One left shoe and I was awash in the arbitrary nature of the sign, and in what Plato makes Socrates call "truth."   It had to be about noon, because for the memory to work, there can't be much in the way of shadow.

It occurs to me, after having it pointed out by many a friend, that the first chills at reading Plato's Allegory of the Cave may be a major life event that is peculiar to my life, and not, say, anyone else's.  I cannot believe that to be true.  I cannot afford that to be true.  One of the only ways I can imagine sustaining a belief that I am my brother's keeper or my sister's keeper, is that we were once all chained together, in the dark.

I had all that space of the excavated brain box to fill, and so I did. It was a rich time and rich times cost you.

All while the proper vocabularies were leeching onto my thoughts, Baber was introducing me to a sensual world more frightening than arousing. One night, when final papers were coming due, and I could get no breaks from work, I met her and the married man we shared for another late night cup of coffee.  "Let me give you some NoDoz," she offered, releasing Phil long enough to go scrounge around in her lingerie drawer.  I took those Black Beauties with a slug of coffee after she explained it was an off brand of the all-nighter's friend.  I know you won't believe me, because she didn't, nor her snickering friends the next day -- but I fell quickly and deeply asleep.

I was as if lost at Baber's place, never feeling it even half mine, despite paying half the rent. We had the second story of a huge and beautiful house, a place kept by an airline pilot in case he was ever grounded there, or so the story went.  I never met Captain So-and-So, and all my rent checks went to Baber. People tend to roll their eyes when I tell them that but if there was a scam, I still don't get it.

Were the Captain to visit, the downstairs floor was his, and it was... something.  Everything in leather that could be, the whole in black and white. The latest in electronics, a semi-loft space, some nicely exposed brick. A kitchen that made me nervous because all surfaces were flat, opaque, and smooth, no place to boil water. When I dared break away from Baber's crowd, from Phil and worries of Marion, Phil's wife, I'd bring my few dates down to that lair. All of them were male nurses from work -- most of them with pills in their pockets.  We played pool and watched TV.  Okay, there was a huge, huge waterbed, but mostly we'd just gently bounce and float around and laugh until it got too cold.

Oh, Marion.  A fiery woman, with matte black dyed hair, under five feet tall, with huge mesmerizing breasts.  She had a voice like a rottweiler, considered herself a psychic, and missed nothing.  Nothing.

Imagine smoking a joint, the usual "hello, darlin'" gift from Phil, who was soon lounging on his back beneath my straddling legs and swaying torso, and having the phone ring, knowing it was her. I always answered.  We firmed up dinner plans, or picked a movie to go see. Then I'd pass the phone to Phil and they'd discuss the retributions of that day's astrology forecast and why Phil Junior was failing art class.

It was months before my fresh squeezed carrot juices were served up by Marion with such a slam on the store counter that my uniforms all bore streaks of orange.  Baber said my mistake was not sleeping with Marion, too. The spaces in my head;  Oh, the spaces in my head!

Phil and Marion had us both stay over at their house for Christmas Eve and a wild party, after which the growing throng formed a huge snake of a massage train, and then everyone passed out in one of the sleeping bags piled beside the tree, against the stairs. I woke up at 4 AM with Phil Junior wiggling into mine, and could never look Marion in the eye again. It was hard not to grill him about his art class issues.

My work at the hospital was rarely fulfilling, so if the Allegory of the Cave rocked my world, imagine my stupefaction when faced with the poet Isaiah, with Socrates drinking hemlock because his principal and the Superintendent of the School District deemed his teaching impious, too snarky for impressionable students. You see?  Nothing is new.

Time in that Smallish Big City was not a waste. I made good and lasting friends, earned easy college credits, and saved most of my money. I met a man and fell in love.  I met lots of men, in fact, mostly guys from Baber's restaurant work, a place that featured acoustic sets three nights a week. I generally found a band member or two in the kitchen, searching desperately for coffee, happy to let me brew a strong pot while they played a gentle guitar in the living room. Baber was never an early riser. It really was a wonderful thing, once I got over the surprise and knew not to nurture any expectations of privacy.

Sharing a good cup of coffee with a softly singing guitar-playing man who expects nothing from you except, perhaps, a refill, and maybe some toast.  There are times I can go right back there, to then, and rest. Just be.

But as someone famously said, about something else entirely: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold..."  I had all that space of the excavated brain box to fill, and so I did. It was a rich time and rich times cost you.

Is it fair to gloss over, as if it were slick, as if it were nothing, the fact that I fell in love?  His name was Bill.  He was two years older, and I met him on the neuro floor, after he'd had brain surgery to remove an aggressive cancer.  Bill was...

A perfect world would let me leave it at that. A better writer would leave it at that:  "Bill was..." Instead, Bill was perfect for my degraded box, something so beautiful, so good, so unaware of sadness, but, finally, he was just a gorgeous tragedy, something that makes you cry and become incoherent after five shots of tequila. That's about when I get the order of salt, lime, and shot all mixed up, and everyone is laughing at me, and I weep.  There were days up in those mountains when I desired The Box That Dad Built, just to tuck Bill in it., and save him from the notice of the gods.

Baber had a gun that somehow made its way under my pillow, a lumpy comfort. I held it through some long nights.

The man I loved was called home, where two years later he died of the brain tumor that introduced us.  He belonged in a different world -- his parents had already started an evangelical organization in his name, a premortem postmortem gesture that bordered on the grotesque. They knew we weren't having consensual Bible Study, and demanded him back. I was reckoned unworthy and a corrupting influence.

Bill had some fame in their region of the world, as a Junior Olympian skier. He was compact and hard and had a low center of gravity, which made him fearless on steep slopes. But brain tumors and skiing don't mix. I helped him in his dying by calling his Ohio home every afternoon at two, by order of his mother, and coaxing him to take his nap.  How I came to have such authority, I never knew.  The implications are not, I think, good.

The day before he died, she dialed the phone for him, so that I could hear at 10 AM his arguments against the 2 PM nap, which amounted to: "I don't want to take a nap.  Why do I have to take a nap?  Where are you?" Of course, I had to decipher his slurred speech as if it were an obscure dialect of a language I once knew, but we settled the matter amicably, and I even arranged for him to have a car ride with his Dad after the damned nap.  Just as I was about to hang up, Billy launched into a refrain.  "I don't want to take a nap.  Why do I have to take a nap?  Where are you?"

I could feel splinters of Dad's box piercing my cerebrum, carving idols on the inside of my skull. I wondered if there were room up there for Bill's tumor, if it could slosh around in me while he headed back to the Alps, sexy, long-haired, and triumphant, back to Val d'Isère, where he had tumbled a long stretch of a crazy, icy race course, in full seizure the whole way.

His Mom sent me a framed picture of him a few weeks later -- his eyes sparkling, black hair in the wind, about a year before they knew those nasty cells were even there, taken on a sunny day at a blue, blue lake -- he had scared her to death by water-skiing on his bare feet, she wrote.  I can still feel the weight of him, perfectly distributed over the length of my body, head-to-head, toe-to-toe. I can barely remember him asking over and over:  "Where are you?"

I felt a failure at 19. I spent 50-60 hours a week talking to people who literally oozed, were unable to talk, and, I pray, unable to hear my insipid chatter. Telling their parents, their pregnant wives and their lost-without-her husbands that "you never know..."

Three times, when one of these vegetative-state patients exhibited repetitive autonomic movement that had no meaning whatsoever, their gathered, excited relatives offered me 50 dollars.  Fifty dollars, each time. Folded up in shaking, liver-spotted hands.  Never mind that my presence had nothing to do with their loved one's exhibition: How did they all choose $50 as the sum to offer their Angel of Reawakening?  Is there a rule, some book of ancient wisdom about how to tip the person who so irritates your vegged-out beloved that she starts to wave her arms about, that his eyes may flutter open for a moment, or even stare?  Baber, former respiratory therapist turned waitress, explained to me that since each event was preceded by deep suctioning of their breathing tubes, the ensuing jerks and tics were much more my fault than anything to my credit.

One young man really did wake up -- just like in one of those tabloid newspaper stories, or Reader's Digest.  He was a motocross wannabe, just fourteen, and had somehow managed to run a railroad tie through most of his brain. Because of his age, the neurosurgeon made a show of trying to save him, but he ended up in our care, in a swooshy room full of ventilators and like-minded people who were rotated with clockwork precision, while sucking down nutrition via n/g tubes.  Their food was always a thick white liquid.  When the time came that it spilled, for one reason or another, from their esophagus into their trachea, that's when they'd develop the blessing of pneumonia, and, if half-assedly fought by a benevolent physician, they could finally die.

This kid did the pneumonia thing and everything. Bed sores galore -- something that always broke my heart and against which I fought with much energy. I kept my patients' bony protuberances clean and dry, I rubbed them red, lotioned them up, and called forth circulation like a Siren. He had severe contractures, despite stretches and splints.   Then one day, he woke up.  I wasn't even suctioning him.  His grandparents made the customary $50 offering, while I burst into tears and, looking like a cartoon character, tried to find someone who might know what to do next, because, though debilitated, this guy was agitated and strong.  

He was soon sent to an extended rehabilitation facility.  I went to visit, feeling all proud and excited, bearing gifts for The Boy Who Woke Up. My ego muttered in my ear that maybe I did have something to do with it, maybe this was a sign unto me, as well as the gift of a new life for him.

His grandparents were there, of course, and looked to have aged 20 years in the few weeks since I'd last seen their happy faces. Grim now, and angry looking, they took my arrival as their chance to go to the cafeteria.  No handshakes slipping me money, they asked instead for change, as the sandwiches down there were all in vending machines, $1.25.

The Boy Who Woke Up threw a full bed pan at me, and did little verbalizing beyond vehement curses, all clearly enunciated and, I suppose, from his point of view, appropriate.

The precariousness of everything became too much, and not long after visiting the Young Lazarus, I loaded the gun.  (Baber had hid the bullets where she hid everything else, the lingerie drawer.)  Out of deference to Phil, I moved the now lethal weapon from beneath my pillows to my closet.  But you and I know where it always was, sitting in my brain, my brain trained to box-build.

And I doubt that Phil was fooled, for Phil did not care.

And I know that Baber was not fooled, though she'd resent me for blood splatter, and for lost rent.

It had been well over a year since I had called "home." As if it were a habit, I picked up the phone and dialed the numbers like an automaton.

The rift between me and my father is bottomless and so wide I cannot see the other side.

"Please come get me," I whispered.

"I'll be there tomorrow afternoon," Dad said. "Be ready to go."

Click.  He didn't ask for directions, which left me holding the inked-up envelope for naught.  His voice was not soft, loving, guilt-ridden, or forgiving, but he was there the next day, and I was packed.  He did not come inside, and I imagine he stopped somewhere just before arriving, to use the restroom, maybe, and eat.

We drove the nine hours in silence, without a pause, and I was led to my old bedroom like a guest unfamiliar with the layout of the house.

I may have had 3 semester hours for the apt completion of "The Bible as Literature" class, but I had forgotten, let's say, that though Deuteronomy and Exodus are credited with the Ten Commandments, they cannot hold a candle to the grave legislation of Leviticus, written around the time of the Babylonian exile..

"You shall rise before the gray headed and honor the presence of an old man, and fear your God: I am the LORD" (Leviticus 19:32).   Reverence, fear, curse, honor, obey, mock, scorn, contempt -- Biblical parent language is loaded language.

I remember sitting in that sterile room, as sterile as when I was enshrined there, admiring its fine appointment, its matchy-matchy with just enough pop to merit a mention in a regional interior decorator's quarterly.  And I felt the pressure building in my head, that old familiar weight and space of rotted wood, bad memories, and a green tarnished brass-clasp lock being reclaimed by my willing return to repression.

For this, I had traded a gun and a litany of sins.

As I write this, it has been 23 years since I have spoken with or seen my father.  I'll never again speak with him in this world; I think of him everyday, which does neither him nor me any good, but is, in all honesty, the best I can do. I know you think otherwise but I am able to look you squarely, clearly, cleanly in the eye, without shame.

Sometimes, usually early in the morning, in kitchens without musicians, the man I loved long dead, this other man here with me for decades now, and Baber's rabid enthusiasm finally understood as the self-medicated manic phase of bipolar disease, I also know that I could have done better.  Is there shame in surviving?

I talk to Dad at night sometimes, telling him of my lasting, my endurance -- the things that might matter to that military man and his ram-rod postures.

That's the last full measure of my devotion.

Sometimes the box in my mind is purposefully closed, purposefully locked, its warped woods clumsily and unevenly reconstituted.  Sometimes it breaks apart on its own, discharging not the horror and evils of the whorling, whoring world, but also what must be called its realities.

Sometimes shining hope, the great last line, is not so much a crackerjack prize lain at the vessel's bottom, underneath all the rest, but is the stark and ugly reminder of choices and consequences -- there's no blaming the gods and their pranks and ploys.

Sometimes hope is a loaded gun, never forgotten, never really gone, pristine, ready.

© 2013 L. Ryan

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